A hundred ago Sir Ebenezer Howard embarked on a radical experiment: to create a new model city outside the capital, full of affordable homes for people wanting to leave the congested streets of London behind.
Letchworth Garden City was developed, with an emphasis on affordable cottages, open space and sports facilities. Welwyn Garden City followed in 1920, with a neo-Georgian town centre.
Back to the future
Fast forward and the need for affordable housing remains as acute as it was in Howard's day. And the two Hertfordshire garden cities — both about half an hour to King's Cross — are still providing an out-of-town alternative to struggling first-time buyers.
Mirage, in Welwyn Garden City, is a contemporary scheme, ranging from coach houses to one-bedroom flats (hightownhomes.com). Once complete there will be about 200 homes on the site, though only 20 or so will be designated for shared ownership.
A half share in a three-bedroom house will cost £95,000, or you could opt for a half stake in a one-bedroom flat for £70,000, or in a two-bedroom flat from £82,500. First-time buyers with a household income of between £26,500 and £60,000 will get priority.
Hub of activity
It turns out that there is a surprising amount going on in Welwyn Garden City — it has a cinema and theatre and the classic stamp of prosperity — a Waitrose. It is close to Stanborough Lakes, popular for watersports, and there is dry skiing at the Gosling Sports Centre.
An annual season ticket to London costs £2,500, and as well as fast trains to King's Cross there is also a 40-minute direct line to the City.
The original Letchworth Garden City homes were designed through an international architectural competition to create dwellings fit for the 20th century — and just launched is a development designed for another architectural contest to find properties fit for our own century.
Tomorrow's Garden City (visit tomorrowsgardencity.co.uk or rowanhomes.co.uk) includes a contemporary low-rise terrace with 32 shared-ownership flats, from £60,000 for a 50 per cent share in a one-bedroom flat, by architects Cole Thompson Anders.
Interiors are neutral and modern with sustainable features to keep the bills down, including air-source heat pumps, solar hot water, and rainwater harvesting.
Nick Wright, managing director of developer Rowan Homes, said: "The ambition of the competition was to deliver high-quality, low-cost, environmentally friendly, ground-breaking housing in Letchworth — and we are delighted with the results."
"The mix of property types will create a sustainable community with a wide spectrum of society and will encourage and support social inclusion, diversity and strong community spirit."
Letchworth, as well as being an easy hop to London (an annual season ticket costs £3,604), has plenty of facilities. There is a well-stocked high street, the cinema is art deco, and the Plinston arts centre has a broad programme of live music and exhibitions. There is also an art deco lido at Norton Common — thankfully heated for when our great British summer lets us down.